If you close your eyes while watching “Fences,” the extraordinary language of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play washes over you and lifts you up.
When you open your eyes, it’s as if the 2010 Broadway revival of that play is unfolding in front of you. Which is mostly, but not entirely, a good thing.
“Fences,” which opens Saturday night, reunites five actors from that production: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson, all gathered in Troy Maxson’s backyard in working-class Pittsburgh circa 1957.
But adapting the play to the screen turns out to be tricky. The play, focused as it is on nothing but talk, is so intrinsically theatrical that the material lays traps for the unwary.
“Fences” has been opened up a bit, but Washington’s direction feels straight-ahead and stagebound. Yet the top-notch acting and powerful rhythm of the language grip us. Every moment on screen may not be enthralling, but some moments are such knockouts they make the film essential viewing.
“Fences” opens on the back of the garbage truck where sanitation worker Maxson (Washington) and his pal Jim Bono (Henderson) spend their working lives.
Troy is angry at racial discrimination, asking, “How come you got all whites driving and the colored lifting?”
Once the conversation moves to the two men’s Friday night ritual of talk and drink in that backyard, the reason for Troy’s frustration becomes clear.
A premier baseball player who was a major force in the Negro League, Troy was too old to transition to the majors, and that rankles him.
If there is a constant in Troy’s life, it’s his wife, Rose (Davis). A force for sanity and love, she understands her husband and his grandiosity better than he understands himself, and the faultless Davis captures her spirit exactly.
The other men in Troy’s life have more complex relationships with him. Lyons (Hornsby), his adult son from a previous marriage, has a habit of showing up on payday asking for a loan. Gabriel (Williamson), Troy’s brother, is a World War II veteran with a traumatic head injury. Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s teenage son with Rose, is a high school football player being recruited by a college in North Carolina, but his father insists that “the white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with that football.”
One problem with the film is that Washington gives Troy a nasty, almost malevolent streak, a problematic fit with the film’s eventual themes of acceptance and reconciliation.
No such qualms exist for Davis. Her signature speech about her own hopes and dreams is flat-out extraordinary. One of Wilson’s great strengths was his ability to combine personal drama with broad social themes, and this film eloquently underlines that gift.
Opens Dec. 24. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references. 2:13. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.